It's been a great week at the Royal Albert Hall, and every performance and rehearsal has been eyed by the bronze bust of the famous conductor
This week, I have mostly been at the Royal Albert Hall, immersed in Proms-land. Some good things, too: Jonathan Harvey's celestial heterophony in his anthem Come, Holy Ghost, performed by the boys and men of the choirs of St John's and King's colleges in Wednesday's Prom; Judith Weir's brilliantly deft Ascending Into Heaven – sung by the same forces – whose effervescent organ part managed to make an image of cosmic transcendence sound as earthy as it was ethereal; and Saint-Saëns's Organ Symphony at the end of the same programme. (The more I hear that old warhorse, the more innovative I think it is. It contains some of the most sophisticated warping of musical time before Sibelius.) Last night, conductor Vassily Sinaisky gave a dynamic, energised performance of Elgar's Second Symphony with the BBC Philharmonic, a fitting memorial to Ted Downes, the BBC Phil's principal conductor throughout the 80s, in the British symphony he loved more than any other.
Presenting for Radio 3, as I've been doing this week, means you get to see the hall in private, watching rehearsals with no one else in the auditorium. You see how conductors and orchestras cope as they get the last chance to brush up their programmes and try to adjust to the Albert Hall's notorious acoustics. Presiding over them all is Sir Henry Wood, at least in bronze bust form, from his perch behind the orchestra, right next to the organ loft. He has the best view in the whole hall – casting, I think, an intimidating glare right into the eyes of every conductor who dares to take the Proms podium that he occupied for nearly 50 years. Here he is in the flesh, conducting Grainger – this footage of the Queen's Hall Orchestra in 1936 was found, according to YouTube, in a skip.
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